Jason Kenney is not the man he used to be. At least not popularity-wise. His approval rate has been falling, not sinking like a stone but deflating slowly like a balloon.
It is a curious phenomenon for someone whose force of character created the United Conservative Party and won the 2019 provincial election with 55 per cent of ballots cast (or, as Kenney likes to say, by capturing an “historic” one million votes). Then came the honeymoon, when his popularity rose to 60 per cent during the “summer of repeal” as Kenney fulfilled campaign promises to scrap the carbon levy, cut corporate taxes and “get tough” with Ottawa. Kenney was the third-most popular premier in Canada.
But he had reached his zenith. The balloon began to leak.
Kenney failed to fulfill a major election promise to turn the economy around and create jobs. Instead, he began reducing government services and cutting public servant positions. In December 2019, his approval rate, much like the provincial economy, lagged. His popularity dropped to 54 per cent, while 53 per cent of Albertans surveyed for a ThinkHQ Public Affairs poll disapproved of his government’s performance.
By February the air was escaping from Kenney’s balloon faster than his damage-control team could pump it back in. An Angus Reid poll had his approval rate down to 47 per cent.
Then COVID-19 hit. The sputtering economy went into freefall. The price of oil fell so low as to go negative for a few days. Unemployment soared. Albertans worried about contracting a deadly virus. Kenney didn’t help matters by picking a fight with doctors in the midst of the pandemic.
By May a Research Co. poll of all provinces indicated that 56 per cent of Albertans surveyed did not want Kenney as premier, the highest disapproval rating of any region polled. In September an Angus Reid poll indicated Kenney had an approval rating of 42 per cent, the second-lowest of any premier in the country. And something remarkable happened. A separate Angus Reid poll had the UCP and the NDP in a dead heat politically, with 38 per cent support each.
In September Kenney had an approval rating of 42 per cent, the second-lowest of any premier. Another poll had the UCP and NDP in a dead heat.
NDP leader Rachel Notley no doubt popped open a non-carbonated, locally sourced, union-made beverage to celebrate. Kenney, understandably, ridiculed and rejected the polls.
But the polls were not ridiculous. They were conducted by reputable polling firms that tracked a clear trend: Kenney’s gradual descent from the political heavens to low earth orbit.
Pundits debated the reasons but several seemed obvious: the deepening recession; Kenney’s failure to create jobs; his war with doctors during a pandemic; an effective opposition party, with a charismatic leader, hammering at him daily; Albertans who thought he wasn’t doing enough to fight the pandemic; Albertans who thought he was doing too much to fight the pandemic.
Then there’s the ethereal issue of likeability and relatability. Kenney is a never-married, single man with no children who has spent his entire adult life in the political arena, a large chunk of it in Ottawa. He’s had to work overtime to boost his everyman cred, including a pre-election stint riding around the province in a pickup truck.
Then there’s his demeanour. Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples, a Kenney stalwart, offered this description: “I view him as an able, cerebral and forceful technocrat, but others see those same traits and describe him as cold, mean and shifty.” Even if some Albertans did find him cold, mean and shifty during the 2019 election, they were willing to support Kenney because they saw him as competent. He promised to rebuild the economy with thousands of well-paying jobs.
You can argue it’s unfair to blame a premier for a recession, especially a downturn tied to a pandemic. But Alberta voters are a fickle lot. They don’t like premiers during recessions. Put another way, they don’t like premiers with bad luck. In 1989, then-premier Don Getty lost his own seat in Edmonton-Whitemud during a recession. Ed Stelmach was hounded from office by an internal party revolt following the 2008 financial collapse. Notley was cursed by an oil-price recession as soon as she took power in 2015, and lost the 2019 election.
Admittedly, trying to use recent opinion polls to predict the next election is like using a thermometer today to predict the weather two-and-a-half years from now.
The good news for Kenney is that if his deflated popularity is caused primarily by the recession, an economic recovery would pump his numbers back up. The UCP is still far ahead in rural Alberta. And while support for the NDP has grown, the party’s rise in support isn’t commensurate with the UCP’s drop. Many disgruntled voters are parking their support or looking at fringe parties, not flocking to the official Opposition.
The bad news for Kenney: he’s politically battered and bruised and vulnerable. He is not the man he used to be.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.